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More Democracy through e-democracy?

Dr. Ulrike Kozeluh

Ulrike Kozeluh is a political scientist who previously worked at the Vienna Centre for Urban Knowledge Management. Her main focus is on the theory of democracy, research on participation and communicating science.

Contact: ulrike(at)

In the history of democracy, demands to involve citizens – as those affected by decisions – more closely in policymaking are not specially new. Again and again, though, the new elements are the methods of involving them, as designed for and employed in participatory processes (e.g. future workshops, consultative methods, focus groups etc). As instruments of participation, both information and communication technologies and the new media are regarded as particularly potent from the point of view of enlivening public political life.

Electronic democracy is not simply a matter of e-voting, but includes a wide variety of possible ways to enliven and strengthen processes of democratic decision-making. I would prefer to see information and communication technologies as additions to and supports for the procedures traditional in our political practice, not just as a substitute for these.

The various forms of electronic democracy, i.e. internet fora, issue-oriented platforms / special-interest communities, on-line consultations etc., invariably emphasize interactive, communication-oriented, debating and negotiating participation aimed at facilitating a policy-shaping discussion both in the public realm and between diverse agents and institutions. This conception of communication-oriented participation via new media is strongly influenced by the notion that the public realm and civil society are the centre of observation and reflexion in modern society. So new media do not merely provide democratic processes with a technical platform or a tool for negotiating socially relevant topics in a community; in the view of those proponents of electronic democracy who see technology as an inherently powerful structuring force, new media have (in principle) an improving effect on democracy on a varying timescale. With the new media, new forms of communication become possible that might well do justice to the claims of all those involved; sensible decisions could be reached sooner and more easily on a consensual basis. But this assumption strikes me as naive.

It is clear that electronic democracy is largely predicated on idealistic notions of participatory democracy. It places rational communication oriented toward comprehension at the centre of public debate, and assumes that all those taking part will naturally have communal goals in mind, even if they represent special interests. I believe there is a risk of losing touch with the realities of actual political practice here, and of neglecting the problem of the unequal distribution of resources (time, level of information, ability to express oneself, willingness to reach a consensus).

So can electronic democracy fulfil the high expectations placed in it, given the realities of participation?

I think it depends what demands we make as regards improving the quality of democracy:

In terms of uncomplicated networking, gathering information, tabling one’s interests, voting, debate and so on , information and communication technologies are of course unbeatable.

But for democratic processes that function by way of new media, or support them, to work well, they need the same conditions as for traditional processes.

Political participation is always subject to economic conditions; so it is essential to make a level playing field (level of information, time, financial resources) for participation possible, which includes developing social and communicative abilities.

Empirical investigations of how the new media are actually used for discussion and voting (e.g. on-line consultation, on-line debate) have produced evidence that they are used mainly by a “community of specialists” with a fairly high level of expertise as regards the issues in question. Frequently the people who accept the offer to participate via new media are members of the so-called information elites.

The following questions are just as applicable to electronic democracy as to traditional forms of democracy: is there an obligation to use the results of a discussion process? Who decides how relevant the result is and how much weight the participants’ contributions have in subsequent policymaking? What rules must be agreed before a participation process starts, to avoid disappointment because expectations have not been fulfilled?

As with traditional processes, it is not a priori certain how policymakers will use the results of such discussion or consultation processes, how much weight they will attach to these results, whether a commitment to using the results of the participation process can be obtained in advance, i.e. whether and how interfacing between the “normal” processes of standard political practice and an electronic participation process can legitimately succeed (and who decides about this).

Trust in representative policymaking is found to increase only in cases where the results of participation processes – and this applies to traditional processes, too – do not simply vanish into a bottom drawer or the far reaches of the internet, but are put to work, or where at the very least policymakers explain in public why they reject the results.

The following conclusion is permissible: even if the tools and methods change and provide more opportunities of having some say – the obstacles, such as the issue of the conditions of access to participation and the implementation of its results, remain unchanged.


Ulrike Kozeluh

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